Back in Lebanon – and life goes on

21 Feb

So.  The Middle East.  What’s it like actually on the ground? What’s going on here, in real time, from the place itself? Here I am in Lebanon, slap bang in the capital of a country whose (non) government has spent much of the last month occupying news headlines and panicking residents and life is as it was when I was last here.  Life goes on.  It is not so much that Lebanon’s political situation has changed but that the static and fractious nature of its government has become more obvious.   For the last few weeks tensions have been rising over the price of fuel.  This is largely because of disagreements and deliberate dawdling from Energy Minister Jibran Bassil and Finance Minister Raya Hassan, both of whom have criticised the other for being so slow.  And why? There seems to be the idea that to credit the one automatically discredits the other.  Neither wants the other to have the glory of a successful action and each has the ability to prevent the decisions of the other from going forward.  It’s bizarre: the Lebanese, who love so much to socialise and to debate, are governing in the same way they host their famous – and fabulous – lunch and dinner parties.  It is lots of talk and lots of wrangling, all of which stems from and is deeply steeped in political, personal or religious affiliations and then phut! little more is done.  Ideas, finding neither enthusiasm nor constructive criticism, simply fizzle out.

That all sounds fairly depressing, though; and one thing that is certain about life in Lebanon is that it is far from depressing.  However ironic it is, a political deadlock has been going on for so long that an all-out government collapse makes little tangible difference.  It is when things directly alter the daily lives of the people – like the price of fuel – that the state of affairs becomes explicit.  Otherwise it continues comfortably in the background.  So the time that Mikati is taking now to form his government sounds far more exciting than it really is.  What! Lebanon without a government! How will it go on? Unfortunately, the simple answer is: quite easily – just as it ever does.

Meanwhile Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic movement and an ally of Hezbollah’s March 8 coalition, is insisting that his bloc gets most of the Christian cabinet seats in Mikati’s government, thereby preventing President Michel Suleiman from his share.  So proceedings have been held up considerably.  Aoun has done this before.  When Saad Hariri was forming his government in 2009, Aoun insisted that Jibran Bassil – the very same Bassil featured above – retain his post in the government, despite having lost the election in his home district of Batroun.  With a helping hand from Hezbollah, Aoun won.  It is likely that his current demands will be met too.  It seems that no one can stop anyone from the magnificent power of the veto.  When will the new government be formed? You can’t help but begin to wonder – does it matter?

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